Jharia, Dhanbad (Jharkhand): Seven months ago, 45-year-old Baijnath Ravidas, a rickshaw puller, died. Though Ravidas’s post mortem could not be conducted by government officials owing to his funeral rites being performed before informing the authorities, the cause was narrowed down to “illness.”
However, his family and neighbours say he succumbed to hunger. Now the residents in the Tarabagan area fear that they may be next.
“How many times should we say that he died of hunger? But nothing really happened after this and we don’t want to speak about it anymore,” the eldest son of Ravidas said while picking up his tools and hastily leaving for work.
Ravidas’s wife Parwati knows that the cause of his death was hunger but can hardly muster the courage to speak about it.
Located just half a kilometer from gate number six of the Jharia coal mine, a dingy alley takes you inside a slum which looks like any other urban slum of Kolkata. With red tiled roofs and green coloured mud homes, most of the women work either as maids while their husbands work as labourers in factories or shops.
Justice has been elusive for Ravidas’s family members and they have lost all hope now. They just want an acknowledgement of the fact that their beloved had indeed died due to hunger.
Fourteen year old Suraj Kumar, Ravidas’s younger son, can hardly hold back tears. “He died because of hunger. There was no food at home for the last couple of days. My mother is usually at home, but my brother started working at a tyre shop right after my father’s death,” said Suraj.Youngest son of Baijnath Ravidas maintains that his father died of hunger
Ravidas’s family has now got their ration cards and a sum of money after his death.
For Parvati though, the struggle is far from over.
“No one believed that he died of hunger and now I still await my widow pension. Let’s see if I get it in the future,” said Parwati.Baijnath Ravidas's wife refuses to speak to the press after promises of jobs and pension has fallen on deaf ears.
Right after Ravidas’s death, the Deputy Commissioner of Dhanbad had stated that since “Ravidas was bedridden for a couple of months,” he died due to illness and not hunger.
But what makes someone, living near a coal mining hub, starve? Urban starvation is perhaps a reality.
Geeta, who lives close to Ravidas’s family, has a job of cleaning utensils at a local factory. Her husband’s efforts to find some work at the coal mine have proven futile.
“I have three children, do you think Rs 400 is enough for us? Most of the gates of the Jharia coal mining belt are closed. So how do we find work?” asked Geeta clutching onto her two year old.
The railways in early 2017 had decided to stop all train operations on the 41-km Dhanbad-Chandrapura stretch in Jharia coalfields zone of Jharkhand from June 15 following the Coal Ministry’s report that pointed out that the age-old fires in the mines have made the area unstable and vulnerable.
With over one lakh families based in the area, Jharkhand Chief Secretary Raj Bala Verma had then visited Dhanbad and asked all agencies and stakeholders concerned to chalk out a time-bound plan to implement rehabilitation of the people.
This rehabilitation plan and closure of crucial operations have led many to either starve, or work for meagre amounts which “can hardly buy food for a single time during the day.”Most of the dwellers now fear that the new rehabilitation plan would ensure they are devoid of basic facilities and access
Aaheli was 10 when she was married off. She never had to worry about starvation and hunger till very recently.
“When I came here, people used to work in the coal mines and factories. We never had to think about food. But we never had ration cards and the need for ration was felt when we had no work. Right now ration card has been made only after Ravidas’s death,” said Aaheli.Geeta and Aaheli have been working at a local factory where they are paid a meagre 400 rupees a month
However, many in the area complain that even though the Prime Minister had promised that a coal company would be started; there was no implementation of the plan.
“Prime Minister Narendra Modi came here and said that Sindhri Company will be opened. He came here to inaugurate it and there has been no action on that front till now. There are no labourers working in that factory till now. A lot of promises are made but no concrete steps are taken. Haqiqat dekho ghar pe aake, kaha choolha jal raha hai kaha jal nahi raha(who comes to check the truth as to what we are cooking and eating),” said Laxmi who maintains that if jobs are not ensured, more would die or “fall ill.”
The district administration had initially said that Ravidas was ill. His neighbours, however, have a question for the authorities: “How would a hungry stomach take in medicines?”
“Some get around 5 kilos of rice but how is that enough to keep us full? I don’t know why government has a different opinion on things that they did not see. There was no food cooked at Ravidas’s home for four days,” said Laxmi who still remembers the first cry of Parwati when she saw her cold husband.
Still reeling from the problems of starvation, the slum has a new worry- Rehabilitation.Slum dwellers rue about the fact that gate number six of the Jharia coal mine is closed.
There has always been an increased risk of caving-in of the coal fire-affected areas of Jharia during monsoon and this has now led Jharia Rehabilitation and Development Authority (JRDA) to speed up the rehabilitation process which is being carried out in association with Bharat Coking Coal (BCCL) and the district administration.
The residents have since then seen increasing visits by government officials and fear that if pushed further away, there would be no option but to starve.
“They have already demolished two houses of the ones who have agreed to be rehabilitated," said Arun Kumar, eldest son of Ravidas.
He had come back to stop his mother from speaking to journalists. Perhaps, he fears it will cause more trouble for the family.
"The place they are sending us is amidst jungles with no schools or proper sanitation facilities. We would have nothing to do there except wait for death,” he said.
(This story is part of a series by News18 on the starvation deaths in Jharkhand)